Monday, May 19, 2014

The Hotel on Place Venedome - Tilar J Mazzeo - Harper Collins

Tilar Mazzeo was a teacher and is a pretty good author, too. She was  fascinated by the Hotel Ritz in Paris while looking at declassified documents about the wartime adventures of Coco Chanel.

This expanded to include the German military, wealthy French civilians and expatriates.  She realized that this diverse group had a significant part in shaping Europe not only after WWII but far into the future. “We all live in the long shadow of this history,” she claims - almost as rationale for this vignette-laden history of the world's most famous hotel. 

Her main focus is between 1941–1945, but also traces the Hotel’s history from construction in the late 1800s to now.  She deliberately eschews the traditionally dry litany of facts commonly used in historical accounts, using the Hotel Ritz as a lens to present the events of World War II in very human—and very memorable—terms.  You get the fly on the wall account, with the before and after of the events.   

Each chapter is dense with everyday incidents and even with Paris under siege during World War I, dinner parties continued; the intrigues were endless.  There was hunger throughout the capitol, but the Ritz was isolated—and indifferent. The history is almost immune to the suffering in this respect, like the description of a painting, ignoring the state of the building it hangs in. 

The stage was set for the Treaty of Versailles, intended to shame and impoverish Germany but also to tempt them.  And during WWII they came back - to the Ritz. 

German soldiers occupied a separate wing of the hotel during World War II. General Hermann Göring took up residence as Hitler’s aide de camp. Well-heeled expatriates, war correspondents, and French citizens all coexisted. As fortunes were lost a brisk trade in jewelry and furs between residents and the Nazis thrived.

Chanel, the catalyst for all this, was just to blame.  She amassed a fortune selling her signature Chanel No 5 fragrance to the Germans.  She was truly one of the most colourful characters in this human drama and the most audacious/  She was an equal opportunity opportunist.

No group was spared their share of intrigue and betrayal. Competition for scoops among war correspondents superseded all manner of fair play, especially as the allied troops landed at Normandy. The author describes one man’s determination to get back to the front by entrusting his rolls of film (106 images) to a courier in London (only 11 survived). Wounded, he was back on the beaches the next morning.

Ernest Hemingway, in competition with then-wife Martha Gellhorn “poached” her press credentials from Colliers. Undaunted, Martha boarded a medical rescue ship  (still without credentials). “When the nurses landed onshore, Martha was among them. She joined the ambulance team and worked side by side with the other medics. Only later would she return to London to file with Collier’san not loo as a freelancer. The magazine had too much sense not to publish them.” Yet in spite of whatever had gone before, these unlikely competitors found their way back to the Ritz as colleagues (and more).

This is a book littered with the undocumented personal histories - the ones that were likely gossip of the day, perhaps innuendo - and now truth of sorts.  How the other half lived.  But like a beautiful car crash - we can not look away.  This will no doubt be a film, and I will pay to see it!

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